REVIEW: Shazam! (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – Warner Bros. / New Line Cinema

The following is a review of Shazam! — Directed by David F. Sandberg.

It pleases me to say that the DC Cinematic Universe has turned a corner. For so long, Wonder Woman, the first film in the connected universe to receive a majority of positive reviews from film writers, seemed like an anomaly in the inconsistent universe where mixed reception was the best that you could hope for. James Wan’s Aquaman, however, was a big hit — one that indicated that perhaps the DC connected film universe still had life in it. And for Shazam! — a character most audiences will be unfamiliar with — DC and Warner Bros. borrowed yet another director from the Conjuring-film universe, Swedish David F. Sandberg, who, thankfully, has made a huge homerun hit for the weakened connected universe.

Based almost entirely on Geoff Johns’ New 52-origin story for Billy Batson and his superhero alter-ego, David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! tells the story of Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel), a basically-fifteen-year-old foster child looking for his long lost mother, who is put in a welcoming foster home that offers him the one thing he’s been chasing for years — a family. Rebellious and unready to accept his new home, Billy still defends his new family from bullies. While doing so, he runs into a subway station where he is then, immediately, summoned to the Rock of Eternity, a dark cave with magical artifacts, by an old wizard (played by Djimon Hounsou).

After estimating his worth, the old wizard gifts all of his powers to Billy and gives him the power of Shazam!. Just saying the magic name — an abbreviation of the names of ancient heroes and gods — turns him into a superhuman adult (played by Zachary Levi). Together with his disabled foster brother Freddy Freeman (played by Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled superhero superfan, they paint the town red as only kids know how to. They stop crime, buy and taste beer, and test out the extent of Billy’s newfound powers. But it is not all fun and games, because the evil Dr. Sivana (played by Mark Strong) and the Seven Deadly Sins are looking for the old wizard’s champion to strip him of his powers and claim them for themselves.

Shazam! is the first film in the DC Cinematic Universe that embraces a fun tone. Now, this isn’t to say that other films in the connected universe aren’t fun, and it certainly isn’t meant to say that no film before Shazam! has worked. But what it is meant to say is that Shazam! is different for DC. Muted colors, deaths, destruction, and deeply serious stories have defined the DC Cinematic Universe for so long. Aquaman indicated that they could do more with the connected universe, as it embraced the colorful and slightly silly costume, and, frankly, the lengths it was willing to go to embrace the fun of that character made it much better.

Shazam! embraces it all fully. There are popping colorful costumes, strong colors all over the place, and plenty of jokes. This may seem like an overcorrection but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Shazam! is fun and charming, and, honestly, for the first time with one of the DC connected universe films, I desperately want to see more with the character. It’s also the first time that DC has made a film with a virtually unknown titular character, and, frankly, I think they’ve hit it out of the park.

There are hints of Harry Potter, Superman, and Big in Shazam! — this is DC’s Big, and the film knows it, too — and I could see this becoming a real hit with young audiences. It is a great film for the entire family, and, in a way, I think DC/WB has successfully found a superhero franchise to use as their own Deadpool, complete with jokes about superhero cliches and tropes. Of course, Deadpool is an R-rated film with adult jokes, and Shazam!, whether that works for you or not, goes for a younger audience with its jokes. I’ll also add that there are some fun easter eggs in the film as well as some shots that are meant to subtly reference other DC-films like Wonder Woman and Superman Returns.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, this film is an adaptation of Geoff Johns’ New 52-origin for Billy Batson, which I think is a great story. It deviates slightly from it, however, in the representation of the villain. Though Sivana is present in that story, his role in Shazam! is much larger. They give Sivana a backstory at the very beginning of the film that tries to make his journey tie into the message of the film — about the importance of family — but I thought the backstory was a little bit clumsy. Though Strong is perfectly fine as the antagonist, his story makes the first act sag a little bit. The truth of the matter is that the film didn’t win my confidence until Zachary Levi was introduced, and, with the inclusion of an opening backstory for Sivana, it takes a little bit too long for the film to get Billy Batson to the Rock of Eternity.

I also thought that the film ran out of steam at a certain point in the third act, as Sivana and Shazam battled for a very long time. All of a sudden, you feel the length of the film as the end battle is drawn out. Furthermore, I will add that the Rock of Eternity had a very unimpressive look to it — it looked like ‘a creation’, a set, it looked fake. Some of the visual effects were a little bit underwhelming as well, but, then again, Sandberg, reportedly, worked with a lower budget than what your average major superhero blockbuster film would cost.

So it isn’t perfect. My final problem with the film may be a little bit of a nitpick, but I thought that there was an inconsistency in the Billy Batson-character. Asher Angel who plays ‘Young Billy Batson’ is fine, but he plays the character with a sadness and a seriousness that is almost entirely absent from the superpowered Shazam-activated Billy Batson that Zachary Levi plays to perfection.

And, really, I can’t say enough about Zachary Levi here. I’ve been a fan of his since I was obsessed with his series Chuck, which, if you think about it, isn’t that far from the wish-fulfillment element of the Shazam-character. Levi knows exactly how to play this character, and, frankly, I think he was born to play this role. In the Thor-films, he was saddled with a barely noticeable background character, but here, as Shazam, Levi really gets to shine. Levi is affable, funny, and endearing through and through. Levi has great chemistry with the charming Jack Dylan Grazer, a great young actor, who here is a quick-witted and fun audience-insert.

David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it is a sweet, colorful, and delightful superhero film about wish-fulfillment and the importance of family. In a world where there is an overabundance of superhero films about preventing the destruction of the world, it is nice to have something like Shazam! — a big-hearted family film with a superpowered individual in bright, red spandex.

8 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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